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    Middle East
     Sep 22, 2007
Shots in the dark over Syria's skies
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, while becoming the first official of that country to admit that it did conduct an air raid into Syria on September 6, sheds no further light on the escapade, thus adding to the mountain of speculation that already exists on the incident.

Netanyahu said on Thursday that he had given Prime Minister Ehud Olmert his support for "an attack", and promptly drew a rebuke from the premier for speaking out of turn.

Israel has imposed a media blackout on the events of the night of



September 6, when Syria claimed its airspace in the northern province of Raqqa had been violated and that its defenses forced Israeli F-15 jets to flee, dropping "munitions" and fuel tanks in the desert near the Turkish border.

The US media insist, however, that the Israelis hit something major. The latest reports, attributed to "US government sources", say that Israel, with tacit assistance and support from the US, bombed a facility at which nuclear weapons were being developed with assistance from North Korea.

Both Syria and North Korea have denied that they are cooperating in nuclear technology, and Pyongyang issued a harsh condemnation of the Israeli intrusion into Syrian airspace.

The two countries insist that the accusations have been fabricated by the US for political reasons - mainly targeting North Korea. Hawks, notably former US ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, are concerned by the peaceful direction in which the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program are going, preferring confrontation.

Joshua Landis, a professor at Oklahoma University who is an expert on Syrian affairs and runs Syriacomment.com, said: "Bolton represents the crowd that is very distressed that the US has declared defeat in North Korea by trusting the North Koreans. They would like to scuttle that agreement."

A diplomat associated with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was quoted saying that the organization didn't know anything about any nuclear facility in Syria.

Buthaina Shaaban, Syria's minister of expatriate affairs, commented to Al-Manar TV, "All this rubbish is not true. I don't know how their imagination has reached such creativity." She added, "Regretfully, the international press is busy justifying an aggression on a sovereign state, and the world should be busy condemning it instead of inventing reasons and aims of this aggression."

The North Korea-Syria story started when Andrew Semmel of the US State Department claimed that Syria "might have" obtained nuclear equipment from "secret suppliers", adding that "there are North Korean people there [in Syria]. There is no question about that."

He repeated claims, made as early as 2004, that a network run by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the now-disgraced Pakistani nuclear scientist who is believed to have supplied gas centrifuges and uranium hexaflouride to North Korea, operated from Syria. But there is no evidence whatsoever - otherwise it would have surfaced - of the Khan network operating from Syrian territory.

Journalists in the US took it from there, saying that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il might be hiding material in Syria, while pretending to rid his country of nuclear weapons to improve relations with the US.

There were reports that three days before the Israeli attack, a ship carrying North Korean material labeled as "cement" unloaded its cargo in Syria. That material, the reports said, was believed to be nuclear equipment.

The reports have not gone unchallenged. Joseph Cirincione, author of Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons and a senior fellow and director for nuclear policy at the Center for American Progress, said, "This story is nonsense."

As mentioned above, the North Korea story is not new. It started in 2004 when Bolton, then under secretary for arms control, accused Syria of harboring nuclear ambitions. This was part of the stream of accusations against Syria after the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

First it was that cronies of Saddam Hussein had fled to Damascus. When they were arrested one after the other within Iraq, the story was changed: Saddam's weapons of mass destruction were hidden in Syria. When that proved false, Bolton came out with his thundering accusation.

This prompted the IAEA to investigate, after which it said there was no evidence to back the claims. IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei commented on June 26, 2004, "We haven't gotten any piece of information on why we should be concerned about Syria."
David Albright, a former United Nations weapons inspector to Iraq, says that IAEA found Bolton's claims on Syria "unsubstantiated".

War or words?
Israel appeared to be trying to defuse tensions with Syria this week, with Olmert saying he was ready to start unconditional peace talks with Damascus. The two countries have been in dispute since Israel occupied the Golan Heights in the 1967 Six Day War.

Syria's state-run daily Tishreen was quick to respond: "What is new in Olmert's proposals is the respectful tone, but the rest is only a repetition of old proposals aiming to trick and divide."

Olmert made a similar offer during an interview with the Saudi satellite TV channel Al-Arabiyya on July 11. "I am ready to sit with you and talk about peace, not war. I will be happy if I could make peace with Syria. I do not want to wage war against Syria," Olmert said.

This proposal was echoed by President Shimon Peres on September 18, who added, "We are ready for dialogue with Damascus."

In the wake of the air incursion, Israel also transferred troops from the Golan Heights to the Negev to defuse rising tensions on the border. Damascus had been told this would happen.

Hours before the Israeli planes crossed the Syrian border, Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign-policy chief, delivered a message from Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak that troop deployment on the border with Syria would be reduced to prevent an outbreak of war, insisting that his country was not interested in war with the Syrians.

If this is the case, it does not help explain just what the Israeli planes were doing over Syria.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


Neo-cons have Syria in their sights (Sep 20, '07)

North Korean bust-up over Syrian 'links' (Sep 19, '07)


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